Philip Hammond brings message of cyber-fear to Microsoft | John Crace

Chancellor lulls gathering of geeks to sleep with presentation to launch UK’s cyber-strategy

It had been that sort of morning. The toaster had set fire to the kitchen and the freezer had spontaneously defrosted. Someone in the KGB headquarters in Moscow had got it in for Philip Hammond. Lurch quickly switched to Breakfast Plan B: a bowl of porridge. Within 10 seconds the microwave had exploded, ruining the granite work surfaces and blowing out the kitchen windows. The chancellor grimaced. He was under the worst cyber-attack yet from his domestic appliances. Enough was enough. It was time to crack down before the government had any Brexit plans to reveal.

Just before lunch, Lurch found himself back stage at the ExCel centre in London, ready to speak to 5,000 delegates at the Microsoft Future Decoded conference. It was undoubtedly his biggest gig yet. Though not quite as big as it might have been as several hundred people rushed for the exits just before he was due on. The chancellor’s reputation for dullness had clearly preceded him, though not even he had anticipated he would be too dull for a hall full of computer geeks.

There again, Lurch had had a tough gig to follow. David Trice from Centrica had wowed them with his silo interfaces, data lakes, and PowerPoint presentation of the British Gas Appliances landscape in 2015. To cap it all, the man from Centrica had just launched a groundbreaking app that would allow the company’s engineers to thank people for being loyal customers at the start of their visit. After a launch like that it could only be downhill.

“The first person I met when I became chancellor was Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of SoftBank,” Lurch began. The Microsoft program to turn Lurch’s speech into a written text on a large screen behind him immediately went into meltdown. It had no idea how to spell Masayoshi Son and rather than risk sounding racist opted to just leave him out of the script. The programme also had problems with Alan Turing (Alan Turin) and ladder (ledder), so it was also possible that Microsoft had yet to build a computer program that could stay awake for the chancellor.

Lurch pressed on. “Tech is the future,” he declared, “and British people do more online shopping than anyone else.” Half the audience immediately decided that now was as good a time as any to do their weekly food shop. Or buy their tickets back to the US. If this was the most interesting stuff the British chancellor had to say, they were clearly wasting their time. Why couldn’t they have had Michael Heseltine, a man who wasn’t afraid to strangle an Alsatian live on stage? Now that’s what they called entertainment.

“A small number of foreign actors have attacked us,” Lurch continued as the Microsoft malware flashed up images of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Isabelle Huppert on the large screen. “And we have to stop them doing this. That’s why I have now decided to train five more people to stop criminals from sending out 50,000 spoof emails a day offering people bogus tax refunds as part of the National Cyber Security Strategy.”

The Russians and the Chinese weren’t mentioned by name, but Lurch left no one in any doubt that his finger would be pointing directly at them if anyone in the audience had any more untoward experiences with household gadgets. “We will defend, deter and develop,” Lurch said. “Make no mistake we are facing a crisis.” Or, as Microsoft would have it, a cri a sis.

Long before the end, the transcription service went dead, leaving Lurch with nothing but a blank screen behind him. Whether this was because the Russians had cunningly hacked the ExCel computer system or Cortana – Microsoft’s answer to Siri – had decided to cut her losses as there was no one left in the hall who was still listening, was not explained.

“Well all right!” yelled a Microsoft MC as Hammond left the stage, trying to whip us some excitement. Lurch will have heard louder applause at a Tory party conference fringe meeting.

“So, Cortana,” the MC continued, sounding increasingly desperate. “What can you recommend we do for lunch?”

“You can start by mainlining amphetamines into my hardware,” Cortana replied.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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